Other People’s Shame

The public has developed a fascination with shame- other people’s shame.  While we are curious about our own shame, we also do not want to feel the pain and vulnerability it causes.  We hide our shame- the fear of being seen differently from how we want to be and we hide our feelings of failure from others; we even hide our shame from ourselves.  The potential for anonymity on the Internet and television provides a unique opportunity to be voyeurs of others’ shameful experiences while, at the same time, offering a safe distance from our own.

In an article for The New Atlantis, Roger Scruton writes about the impact of the Internet on human relationships and concludes that, in this realm, our accountability to other people as well as the risk of being embarrassed has all but dissipated.  He observes that we can come and go in relationships from behind a screen “without any embarrassment.”  At the same time, Scruton makes the important point that avoiding risk means avoiding accountability.  In his words, we need “risk, embarrassment, suffering, and love.”  Therefore, avoidance is not okay if we are to grow as human beings.

“In human relations, risk avoidance means the avoidance of accountability, the refusal to stand judged in another’s eyes, the refusal to come face to face with another person, to give oneself in whatever measure to him or her, and so to run the risk of rejection.   

Scruton, an English professor, captures the core emotional aspects of shame-theory when he describes the human desire to escape shame brought on by criticism and the need to hold on to human connections at all costs.  My work as a psychoanalyst has shown me that the only way we learn to safely regulate shameful emotions is by engaging in face-to-face relationships.

Another means by which we keep a safe distance from our own shame is through watching television shows that demean participants.  Tom Alderman writes in the Huffington Post about a subset of Reality TV called Shame TV.  He believes:

       Shame TV “uses humiliation as its core appeal.”

Humiliation as appeal?  How has this come to be?  Alderman’s answer is that we want to see people being humiliated to feel better about ourselves by reveling in others’ adversity.  While I agree, for me the answer goes deeper than feeling better that others are suffering and not us.  I believe we are looking to understand our own shame by being voyeurs to the shame of others.  Alderman quotes psychologist Dr. Geoffrey White who writes:

“we identify with the people doing the humiliation without feeling responsible for it.

While this is also true, a defense mechanism called “identification with the aggressor” offers a deeper explanation.  This refers to the process whereby a child unconsciously copes with shame by adopting the perspective of the needed caretaker.  Becoming like the person doing the shaming allows a child to defend against pain and remain connected.  When this defense is carried into adulthood, it is again employed to identify with persons doing the shaming rather than the person being shamed, and explains the fascination with watching humiliation on Shame TV.

We are also fascinated when celebrities disclose their shameful secrets.  In a recent letter to the public, Lady Gaga tells all about her struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in an effort to cope with the shame she feels about her condition and to help young people who feel ashamed of mental illness.  By sharing her plight, she hopes to help others feel less ashamed and lend support.  She writes:

“No one’s invisible pain should go unnoticed.

Lady Gaga’s reference to invisible pain is a fundamental aspect of shame.  We want to hide our shame from others and from ourselves.  She recommends offering kind words to help people overcome shame.  This advice captures the essential element for treating shame: empathy.  By opening up about her experiences she allows us to learn about shame through her, all the while keeping a distance from our own shame.

Does all of this exposure to shame on the Internet and television increase our curiosity about our shame or do the powerful defenses that protect us from shame outweigh our curiosity to face our painful feelings?  These are some questions I plan to address in the blogs that follow.